Summary: There’s a string of awful killings in Virginia City and evidence seems to point to Adam, but there’s much more going on and could be tied to events from long ago although it finding that connection will be difficult. First story in a series.
Word Count: 2195
“You’ll hang for this, Adam Cartwright; someday you’ll hang.” The young lady was distraught and angry. Her father had been killed three days earlier by Adam. Her father was in his grave, and the man who killed him stood free and alive at the stage depot.
“Your father died because he had too much to drink and drew on me over a simple card game.” Adam was carrying a lot of guilt for not being able to avoid bloodshed. He knew the man didn’t stand a chance if he drew on Adam, so he had tried to convince him to let it go. The man wouldn’t and drew on Adam, who had no choice if he wanted to live. Even a drunk with a pistol can kill you from only six feet away.
“He never had a chance. That’s murder in my book, and you’ll hang. Someday you’re gonna pay for what you did to my father.” Fifteen-year-old Cassie McGovern climbed up into the stage with a steely look. Roy was sending her to her aunt in California.
Adam stood by Roy as the stage pulled away. “I meant what I said, Roy. I’ll pay any expenses, and if you hear she’s needs help with anything, just tell me.”
“You don’t have to do that, Adam. You said the God’s honest truth to her. Someday, she’ll understand.”
“I doubt it, Roy. I know how I would have felt if someone had shot my father to death when I was only fifteen.” With that, Adam mounted up to ride home. Roy watched him leave knowing that he always carried too much responsibility for things that happened, but it was his way.
Standing in his surgery and staring at a mangled corpse of what had been a pretty saloon girl, Doctor Paul Martin spoke very sadly but efficiently. “Roy, Sally is a mess. The left side of her face and her throat have been nearly chewed away. I have no idea what killed her because she’s so battered and mutilated, but it looks like she suffered knife wounds by some of the incisions I can see. I can tell you, too, that she fought back at first. Her fingertips are bloody and her nails have blood under them. She scratched her attacker, whoever it was.”
“So, Doc, if we see a man with scratches, we oughta be talking to him about where he got ’em?”
“Roy, that’s all we have.”
“A darn shame; a pretty little thing like that and hurt so bad. Well, I guess I’ll go tell Sam what happened. He’s the one told me she was missing when she didn’t come into work tonight. You got any idea when this happened?”
“I would guess last night or very early this morning. How wolves or coyotes got to her body in town like that, I don’t know, but the blood is dried and black so she’s been dead quite a while. The only thing not stained by blood is this red feather in her hair.”
“Well, I’ll keep that in case it means something, but I would think a saloon gal with a feather in her hair ain’t so unusual.”
“No, probably not.”
“But I got nothing to go on so far, so I’m keeping this as the only evidence I got. I saw Hoss and Adam riding in earlier. I’m going to go see them and see if they can look for tracks or something near Sally’s place. I know Adam liked Sally, so I’m thinking he’ll want to help.”
Roy found Hoss and Adam at the general store talking with customers who were filling them in on what they knew of the grisly murder of Sally. When Roy got close to them and called their names, he was surprised to see scratches on Adam’s face. He had to ask.
“Yesterday I was pulling strays out of box canyons or any other place they tried to hide. One calf was stuck in some brush, and when I went in to free him, a branch scraped across my face. Hop Sing already doctored them up for me when I got back home this morning.”
“So you weren’t home last night?”
“No, but why would that matter to you?”
“Oh, it doesn’t really, but I got to ask ‘cause you knew Sally real well, and whoever attacked her got scratched by her. Doc found blood on her fingertips and under her nails. She fought like the dickens to try to live.”
Adam offered to pay any expenses for Sally to be buried properly, and then he and Hoss went with Roy to see if they could find any tracks near where she had been murdered.
It didn’t take long for Adam to call Hoss over to where he had been looking. “Are these wolf tracks? If they are, it’s the biggest wolf I’ve ever seen.”
Hoss was as amazed as Adam, and then so was Roy when they told him that those were the only tracks they found, other than those from Roy and Clem who had discovered the body and carried her to the doctor’s office. The assumption was that any other tracks had been covered by the wolf or by Roy and Clem as they rolled the body in a blanket to carry it away.
After returning to the general store to load up the supplies they had ordered, Adam and Hoss both felt the need for a drink. They headed to the saloon and offered their condolences to Sam, who always watched out for the girls who worked in his saloon. Two men in the saloon made some pointed comments implying that Adam had killed Sally. He had known her well and been with her often, he had no alibi, and he had scratches on his face. To some, that meant he must be guilty. Adam wanted to fight, but Hoss ushered him out of the saloon before he could fight the two men. A saloon girl who favored feather boas was sitting with the two men and encouraging their commentary because she disliked Adam Cartwright intensely. A black cat slipped almost unnoticed through the saloon doors and followed Adam and his brother as they rode home.
Trips to Carson City and Sacramento as well as work on the Ponderosa kept Adam out of town for the next month except when he was leaving or returning by stage.
One month after Sally’s murder, the two men who had harassed Adam about Sally’s death met the same fate as the unfortunate saloon girl. Their mutilated and eviscerated bodies were found by the liveryman as he went to put the horses from the corral into the stable for the night. He retched up his dinner and then went to get Roy and Clem. The two lawmen were as shocked as they had been when Sally was killed. There was no question that the murders were connected. Each man had a red feather stuck in his hat band. Their hats and clothing were the only ways to identify them because both men preferred purple neck scarves as well as purple plaid shirts. It was a reasonably bright night with a full moon. Then a dog began to howl somewhere in a farmhouse far down the road — a long, agonized wailing, as if from fear. Both Roy and Clem shivered a bit hearing that sound, but wouldn’t admit to each other how much it unnerved them.
In the saloon, Sam heard the howl as well, and that’s when Sam remembered that he had heard the same eerie wail the night that Sally was murdered.
Clem looked over at Roy. “You know people are going to think Adam Cartwright had something to do with this.”
“I know that, and I’ll go talk to him, but you know and I know he could never do anything like this — murdering two men in cold blood in such an awful way especially. I don’t know what kind of man could do something like this. I still don’t know how a wolf can get to these bodies in town without us seeing or hearing anything at all. And how does that wolf get here before we even know there’s been a murder?”
Roy and Clem had been talking where the liveryman could hear them. He heard them mention Adam and also heard Roy’s comments about red feathers. He repeated all that he could remember when he went to the saloon for a drink to calm himself. Amid the angry talk about Adam, Sam was thoughtful. He had a new gal working at the saloon for the past two months. She was young and she liked to wear feather boas. There were red feathers in each of them. He decided to watch her.
The next morning, Roy rode out to the Ponderosa to talk with Adam and warn him not to come into town until things calmed down. But Adam wasn’t there. Again Adam had no alibi as he was out riding fence lines and hadn’t come home yet at that point. Roy told Ben to tell Adam to stay put for a few days.
As Roy rode out, he saw a black cat sitting on the corral fence watching him. Despite the legends he had heard about black cats, this one made him feel better somehow.
Things stayed heated in town for days and then weeks as people began to suggest that Roy was covering for Adam. Joe did go to town and got into an altercation with a card shark. Roy told him to stay out of town too. By the end of the month, only Ben and Hoss were free to go to town, although neither enjoyed it because each time they heard ugly rumors about Adam.
Finally Hoss decided he would go to town with the hands on a Saturday night.
Nothing happened except Sam saw the new saloon gal put a red feather in the lapel of the card shark who had been working the saloons around town and was back in his saloon for the first time since having trouble with Joe. Sam had loaded up his shotgun shells with shot, pieces of silver, and salt. He had been doing some reading but didn’t want to admit to anyone what he thought he might know, but he had noted that the attacks occurred with a full moon, and there was a full moon again that night. When it was time to close, Sam quickly locked up without cleaning up and followed the card shark out the door. He had his shotgun at the ready.
Hoss had walked out with him and asked about the shotgun.
“Hoss, just be ready for anything.”
Sam continued to watch and listen until suddenly a large, dark, hairy mass leaped from the roof of the boarding house directly onto the card shark walking below. Sam ran forward and fired one shot and then another into the werewolf. It slowed the animal and made it turn to face Hoss and Sam.
Hoss drew and fired as well while Sam was reloading. Neither man could imagine how the beast kept its feet and actually began to advance on them. Sam fired again, hitting the beast in the neck, which noticeably slowed it down. Hoss reloaded frantically as Sam fired another shot directly into the chest of the beast.
Hearing the firing, Roy and Clem had run to see what was wrong. They began firing at the beast as well. It was bleeding profusely and its head was at an odd angle until Sam fired again severing the head from the body. The beast fell then and its head rolled away. As that happened, the body went through metamorphosis, emerging into a man’s body riddled with bullet holes with his head just a few feet away in the dirt. The men stood gaping and unwilling to believe any of what they had just seen.
Hoss spoke first. “It musta been the dark that made it seem like he was bigger and furry.”
Sam disagreed. “We know what we saw. It’s just that not a single soul would ever believe a single solitary word of it.”
From the shadows, a woman watched. She knew she would need a new beast. She was well aware that Sam had suspected her activity so she knew she would need a new identity again, but somehow she would make sure that Adam Cartwright died for what he had done. Someday he would pay for killing her father. She melted into the darkness with her feather boa slung over her shoulder and a black cat trailing after her.
One month later, a letter arrived for Adam, who still seldom went to town. Hoss brought the mail and handed the letter to him. Adam opened it to find that all that was inside was a single red feather that floated to the floor when he dropped it like it was a burning match that singed his fingers. He looked at Hoss who looked back at him with the same worried expression.